On a recent Wednesday, students at Eastern Maine Community College’s culinary arts program kept a watchful eye on the dining room of the Rangeley Cafe, where diners eagerly awaited a multi-course Spanish feast, the theme of the week. Dressed in starched white shirts, black bowties and black pants, the servers attended to guests in the dining room — taking orders, delivering artfully prepared dishes and using sleek, metal crumb sweepers to clean the tables.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the swinging doors that led to the teaching kitchen, there was a bustle of activity as food was being prepared. Their classmates in chef’s whites with black chef’s hats peeled cheese crisps from parchment paper to garnish the first course, Escudella a la Catalana, a vegetable soup. Other dishes to be served that day included Zarzuela, a shellfish stew and Paella, a rice dish. For dessert, there was a choice of flan or churros.
Instructors, always nearby, took every opportunity to teach during the meal preparation and serving, including pausing to demonstrate how to properly fold a napkin when a customer momentarily excuses themselves from the table.
Such feasts take place every Wednesday, as students in the culinary program serve a full, reservation-only lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. to around 100 paying customers. In the fall, students learn to cook and serve classical French cuisine in the cafe. Springtime means a tour of international cuisine — a different country each week.
“It’s a small menu each week, but make no mistake — we run it like it’s a real restaurant,” said Chef Jay Demers, department chair of culinary arts, food service and restaurant management at EMCC. “There are customers out there [that] they have to take care of.”
EMCC’s culinary program has developed into a reliable supplier of talented, ambitious chefs and food professionals for the area’s burgeoning food scene. In downtown Bangor in particular, restaurants including Fiddlehead, Brahma Grill, Nocturnem Draft Haus, Fork & Spoon and Umami Noodle Bar all boast staff members and/or chefs who have graduated from the program.
Demers believes it has something to do with the well-rounded educational experience he and the other faculty aim to give its students.
“You don’t just learn how to cook. You learn something about every aspect of the food industry,” said Demers, who has been with the program for 20 years. “I think we are just committed to producing really good people, that are trained and ready to work in food. It’s a tough program. It’s small. You get one-on-one training.”
Though learning techniques such as how to make a proper hollandaise sauce, perfectly dice an onion and use a sous vide machine are all part of the curriculum, students in the program have to do more than just cookery. They get real experience in the inner workings of restaurants through the Rangeley Cafe; students take turns in the front and back of house each week to learn not only how to cook a four-course meal, but how to serve it, too, in the white tablecloth service dining room.
The program, which currently has 60 students enrolled, has been in existence for decades — first as a certificate in food technology, and since 1994 an associate’s degree in culinary arts. Though there are culinary programs at other community colleges in Maine that offer some form of food service open to the public, the Rangeley Cafe is the only full-service training restaurant in the state.
EMCC students also have mandatory paid externships during the summer in between their first and second years, working and gaining experience in restaurants and facilities across the state for credit.
“Most schools offer restaurant training to some extent, but we have the lead on running a live restaurant here in Maine. Other schools look to us as a model,” said Demers. “The live training is much more intense. You have to do an externship. And that’s on top of everything else you have to learn about safety, and ordering, and on and on.”
That externship, some graduates of the program say, can help transform culinary school students into people ready for real restaurant work.
“Once you’ve gone through a year in the classroom, if you’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, that externship can honestly be traumatizing for some people,” said 2014 culinary program graduate Kara van Emmerik, who was head chef at Novio’s Bistro in downtown Bangor when it opened in November 2016, and is now teaching full time at EMCC. “Or, it can also turn them into a completely different person. It can transform them into someone ready to run a line. It’s pretty amazing to see that when it happens.”
Emily Kennedy, a 22-year-old EMCC senior and Springfield native, will this summer begin a job as pastry chef for all seven of the Ocean Properties restaurants and hotels on Mount Desert Island. She’s already been making desserts and other sweet treats at Timber Kitchen & Bar in Bangor.
“It’s a pretty amazing job. Chef Demers teaches us to be humble, but I’m pretty excited,” said Kennedy.
Demers — a keen observer of the growth of the dining scene in the Bangor area and regular diner at many area restaurants — is understandably proud of his students who have had an impact in food and dining in the region.
“In 20 years we’ve come leaps and bounds … the Bangor food scene is a totally different place than it was back then. No, we’re not Portland. But we’re becoming our own thing,” said Demers. “I try to be humble, but I’d like to think [EMCC has] had something to do with that.”
Even restaurant owners admit to looking to EMCC for reliable help for their kitchens.
Gene Beck, owner of Nocturnem Draft Haus, has hired six EMCC culinary program graduates in various capacities since opening in 2011.
“Because they’ve come through Chef Demers’ program, they know what they’re doing,” said Beck. “Those guys are pretty good at what they do and they run a solid program, and expect a lot from students. Most of the time, they are pretty well prepared to take that next step into the restaurant world … I’ve had a lot of good kids come out of there. We’d really prefer culinary students, at this point.”
Alumni have opened their own restaurants, catering companies and other food businesses, too. They make everything from gourmet burgers to farm-to-table fare in kitchens across the region. Graduates work in senior positions at dining services at the Cross Insurance Center, the University of Maine and Hollywood Casino. They are sales representatives for food distribution companies, bar managers and maitre’d’s, and teach in culinary education programs at other schools.
“I remember a few years ago, Jay saying that not as many kids from the program stuck around in the culinary world, or stuck around in the area,” said Elisabeth Dean, a 2015 graduate of the program who now owns Fork & Spoon, a downtown Bangor cafe and bakery.
“I think that’s absolutely changed. There are tons of them around here now. I’ve hired two people from the program. That’s real creation of jobs … There’s a pool of employees here that are really well trained, and can support a food scene that’s growing and dynamic and really high quality.”
Lunch at the Rangeley Cafe is $20, though reservations are only open at the beginning of the semester, and fill up quickly. For information, visit www.emcc.edu/rangeleycafe.